Internet censorship in Pakistan needs dialogue
THE MINISTRY of Information Technology has recently issued directives to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to instruct all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block Twitter in Pakistan. The reason cited for this ban was Twitters noncompliance with the governments request to block blasphemous contents from its forum. Minister for Information and Technology, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, maintained that while Facebook had acted upon their request, Twitter had refused to do so due to which the platform was banned in the country.
The ban on Twitter, though lifted after some hours, is yet another example of how unpredictable access to the Internet and websites is in Pakistan. This increasing trend to block sites at the behest of just about anyone is also worrisome. It is not the first time an incident of this nature has occurred and it is probably not the last either. While we believe that where religious sentiments are concerned, matters must be dealt with sensitively, however, we disagree that blocking and banning is the right solution. Also, blocking a website and then informing why it was done is an extremely undemocratic practice.
I believe that solutions must arrive at through dialogue and discussion. The views of all stakeholders including end users must be taken into account. And the sole power to decree blanket bans such as these should not reside with a single state official or institution.
We call upon all state institutions and concerned citizens to address the matter at hand in their capacity and make the following recommendations:
– Constitute a platform where stakeholders can raise their concerns and where they have access of the relevant state officials
– Formulate a legal and policy framework with the consensus of multi-stakeholders, in order to devise a proper system to respond to incidents of this nature and others
– Account for all bans that have been effected to date through a transparent process with regards to the bans effected and directives issued: The government must make public all documents requesting bans – those addressed to foreign companies and all internal notifications; it must also present the reasons the bans were effected (in writing), listing the officials behind these decisions, as well as the process that was followed
– Do away with the power vested in certain entities and institutions to unilaterally order blanket bans
Though it is expected that the government will refrain from effecting blanket bans in future, if again such an incident does take place, the notification should come before and not after the event, and ministry officials as well as the respective heads of PTA and the ISP association should be easily accessible for public statements. It should not be necessary for explanations to be sought from them; rather, they should present them without being asked, as per their duty to the public. Any such decision should in any case be arrived at through an established multi-stakeholder process.
Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based, APNS-award winning journalist. She can be reached through email@example.com